Plus: Mohamed Salah back to his best; Newcastle's nod to the good old days; Everton keep distance to relegation tussle; Leicester lack cutting edge; the gulf between rivals Liverpool and Man Utd plain to see at Anfield; title and top-four races unpredictable...
Friday 22 April 2022 09:22, UK
Burnley chairman Alan Pace now finds himself in the position of having to decide whether to stick or twist with a manager just a week after he axed the last.
The Clarets have picked up four points since Sean Dyche was unexpectedly sacked last Friday after 10 years at the club - with a 1-1 draw at West Ham and an impressive 2-0 victory over Southampton.
Those game have been led by Burnley's U23 manager Mike Jackson and assisted by academy director Paul Jenkins, U23 goalkeeping coach Connor King and injured captain Ben Mee. Burnley could well have been out of the relegation zone already had Maxwell Cornet's penalty found the net when Burnley led 1-0 against West Ham, but they are now only a point adrift of safety.
Their performance against Southampton, barring a nervy opening 10 minutes, didn't look like one from a team that had only won four games this season under Dyche. Saints goalkeeper Fraser Forster, beaten by first-half goals from Connor Roberts and Nathan Collins, made the scoreline look much closer than it was with a string of fine saves.
So all eyes are back on Pace - chairman since December 2020 - over what he'll do next. The American businessman wrote in his Southampton programme notes a "change was necessary to offer us the best chance to try and secure our Premier League survival".
He explained how the club was looking to identify a new manager and coaching team that can come in capable of building on Dyche's legacy, but do they already have one in the building?
"I will probably speak to the chairman and he will let me know if I am needed for next game," said Jackson after the Southampton match on the possibility of staying in the role with Burnley set to host Wolves on Sunday. "I am here to prepare the group, I don't want to think or talk about all that, I don't think it is right."
Burnley then have six days before a huge clash at relegation rivals Watford with Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp believing a change isn't necessary right now given the job Jackson has done.
"I think they will stick with him. If they'd have lost these games they would have changed it," he said.
"Burnley have good honest characters and have given themselves a lifeline today, so I'm not sure why you would change the manager right now."
All the talk before the game was Arsenal's goal-shy strikers.
The Gunners' 1-0 loss to Southampton on Saturday made it 15 games since one of their strikers scored a goal from open play in the Premier League, which was a run which went all the way back to December.
Step forward Eddie Nketiah.
Leading the line for the Gunners at Stamford Bridge, there would have been doubts about Nketiah's inclusion after his performance at Southampton. There were calls for Gabriel Martinelli through the middle and even shouts for Nicolas Pepe to play as a striker.
However, Arteta stuck with the former England U21 striker, and it was a decision that paid dividends as Nketiah produced an excellent performance, grabbing two opportunist goals to lead his side to a crucial victory in the race for the top-four.
The question now is, can he do it again?
"He could be a 4/10 next week, if he wasn't he'd be in the team every week, that's his second start all season," Paul Merson told Sky Sports. "The consistency levels are not there but if he gets it for three or four games then Arsenal can come fourth.
"He's a natural goalscorer plus he's willing to run beyond. Lacazette wouldn't have chased that first [goal]. He wouldn't have scored those two goals. Even though he's a better footballer, he's not a better finisher."
After a performance like that it's hard to not see him getting an opportunity to back up that performance against Manchester United. "Nketiah is going to be playing against Man Utd at the weekend," former Gunners striker Alan Smith said just after the striker was substituted. "No question of that. That was just what he needed and just what his team and club needed."
What Arsenal need is for him to do it again, and again, and who knows his future, which has been in doubt for a long time, might just still be at Arsenal.
Kevin De Bruyne made his 300th appearance for Manchester City against Brighton. Usually, players approaching such a milestone for one club will be winding down, allowing the younger guns to come through and drive the team forward.
Not De Bruyne.
He is playing some of the best football of his career on current form. You could easily make the argument that he is currently the best midfielder on the planet, perhaps even the best player in the world. His performance against the Seagulls was another example of his greatness. He has now been directly involved in six goals in his last five Premier League games.
When Manchester City needed inspiration in what was looking like a nervy evening, De Bruyne took responsibility and found a change of gear needed to set up the all-important first goal. For most of the match his direct running through the Brighton midfield was impossible to stop and on 53 minutes he left three Brighton defenders in his wake before a somewhat lucky ricochet sent through Riyad Mahrez who finished with the help of a deflection.
You make your own luck though. There was nothing fortuitous about the third goal that De Bruyne assisted with a drool-inducing flick to somehow find Bernardo Silva in space who finished impeccably from the edge of the box.
No player has ever won the PFA Player of the Year award three years on the spin but his end-of-season brilliance could turn the vote away from Mohamed Salah, who has been odds-on favourite for the award for many months now. It could be a close race. In this kind of mood, there aren't many better in world football than the City star.
"When he is mentally ready and fit he is a player who is incredibly special, it was an incredible performance". said Pep Guardiola.
Not since the Sir Bobby Robson era have Newcastle picked up six straight Premier League wins - and it's that type of football that the club's new Saudi owners were trying to move towards after years of stagnation.
Not a lot was going to be discovered tonight - given both sides had all but secured Premier League survival before the game - but now the Magpies have the top half in their sights.
Should Newcastle finish in the top-flight's top ten come the end of the season, then it's a really positive opening six months at St James' Park for the new ownership. It justifies the patient process to hire Eddie Howe, plus the early investment the club have made in the likes of Bruno Guimaraes - who has settled in quickly alongside Jonjo Shelvey and Joelinton in midfield.
Meanwhile, the excellent home form will help unite the team, its owners and the fans as they take the first steps on this new journey together. The away form is less impressive with three straight defeats - and with Liverpool and Arsenal still to visit St James' Park, improvement on the road will be next on Howe's checklist.
For Crystal Palace, Patrick Vieira demanded before the game that his players will not simply fade into May after their FA Cup semi-final loss - so he won't be happy with this display at all.
The likes of Connor Gallagher and Michael Olise did not seem up for the challenge tonight - which may have explained their premature withdrawals either side of half time. This will be a lesson learned for Vieira's young side.
Ahead of the game and the team news announcement, Sky Sports’ Alan Smith said on Nketiah:
“It’d be good to see Nketiah get another game. He needs rhythm and a bit of fluidity. It’s not easy being brough in for one game and then getting left out for the next.
“Reading between the lines, he probably sees his future elsewhere, but if he gets a goal here, he could have a storming end to the season.”
For 91 agonising minutes, Everton looked set to gift wrap an incentive and send to Turf Moor ahead of a potentially defining stage of this season's relegation run-in.
An eighth home league defeat looked on the cards when Harvey Barnes' opener was followed by a raft of missed Everton chances and a disjointed display from Frank Lampard's side against Leicester.
Such an eventuality would have handed manager-less Burnley a timely boost ahead of their crunch Premier League match against Southampton on Thursday. In fact, a victory would have lifted the Clarets above Everton and out of the bottom three had things ended as they had threatened to.
But, to their credit, Everton ensured they didn't, channelling the energy of the Goodison Park deep into stoppage-time where Richarlison atoned for his two earlier glaring misses to rescue a dramatic late point.
It means that instead of having to win just one of their next two games to knock Everton into the bottom three ahead of Sunday's Merseyside derby at Anfield, Burnley have to follow up victory over the Saints with another against Wolves on Sunday.
Everton may have only secured a point against Leicester but, with the Clarets registering back-to-back Premier League victories just once all season, it was a victory of sorts in the relegation battle which may just help them win the war.
There was a frustrating sense of déjà vu for Leicester as they trudged off the field at Goodison Park. Just had been the case three days prior at St. James' Park, where Bruno Guimaraes snatched all three points for Newcastle in the dying seconds, two more points passed Brendan Rodgers' side by.
What was perhaps most frustrating was that Everton should have been buried long before Richarlison's dramatic stoppage-time equaliser. Leicester's start, in spite of Rodgers' seven pre-match alterations, was bold. It deserved more; the Foxes should have been out of sight before the break.
The attacking flair and slick build-up was there, Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall and James Maddison dictated the rhythm of the contest from the first whistle, but that presence at the top of the pitch to convert their dominance into goals was crucially absent.
Rodgers revealed after the draw at Goodison that Jamie Vardy was due to return to training on Thursday after a month-long spell on the sidelines. His return cannot come soon enough, only Newcastle (24) and Southampton (23) have dropped more points from winning positions than Leicester (19) in the Premier League this season.
Things have hardly been going badly for Liverpool in recent weeks. They are now unbeaten in nine games in all competitions and are 13 unbeaten in the league as they still chase an unprecedented quadruple.
However, a lot of talk has been focussed on Mohamed Salah's form.
The Egyptian hadn't scored in eight games before his double against Man Utd, and questions were being asked of Jurgen Klopp, who recently rested him against Benfica in the Champions League.
All those doubts surrounding Salah were firmly put to bed against United as he got back on the scoresheet and looked a lot more like his old self, which had Sky Sports' Jamie Carragher excited about the run-in to the season.
He said: "The thing that gives me belief that this could be a really special season is the performances in the last two games. Liverpool for the last eight to ten games have been getting the job done, a great quality to have, but tonight I felt like the energy was back. The zip in the passing, the pressing and it was there against Manchester City at the weekend.
"With Mo Salah coming back as well, it's not just his goals but it's the sharpness, the energy. That's what he'd been struggling with, it wasn't just the goals, he hadn't looked himself in games. If Liverpool can keep that between now and the end of the season that gives me real belief that it could be a really special season."
Following his brace, Salah is the first player in Premier League history to score five goals against Manchester United in a single campaign. He is also just the second player to both score and assist in home and away Premier League games against United in a single season, after Mesut Ozil in 2015-16.
Despite his recent dry spell in front of goal, his two goals at Anfield have taken his tally for the league season to 22, stretching his lead at the top of the Premier League goal scoring charts to five goals over Heung-Min Son. Crisis? What crisis?
And if this is the start of yet another productive spell in front of goal for Salah, it might just turn Liverpool into history makers.
Klopp had talked it up as a meeting between the two biggest teams in England and it had that big-game feel right up until kick-off when the reality became clear. Liverpool played at a pace that United could not comprehend let alone cope with.
Their trajectory feels so different as they chase an unprecedented quadruple that would not only leave their rivals in the shade but eclipse the outstanding achievement in Manchester United's history. How can the gulf between the two be this great?
Thiago Alcantara was a class above most on this pitch but nobody in a United shirt came close. Luis Diaz, the latest find, was full of urgency from the outset. In contrast, Marcus Rashford was eased off the ball by Virgil van Dijk early on and hardly saw it again.
Alisson summed up the contrasting confidence levels with a Cruyff turn. Moments later, David de Gea hesitated when the Brazilian would surely have come out to clear. That led to the opening goal and Ralf Rangnick's plan to contain and frustrate was in tatters.
Has a supposedly top team ever played with this little belief?
While it might still seem astonishing that two squads on similar salaries can end up delivering such contrasting performances, there should be no mystery at all as to why. This is the product of perfect planning at Liverpool, while United are yet to implement one.
Perhaps the arrival of Erik ten Hag will mark a sea change at Old Trafford. If the Dutchman is given time and trust, his body of work so far suggests that his employers will be rewarded. But that is for the future. The verdict on the here and now came on the pitch at Anfield.
This has been a wasted season.
Where do you start with Manchester United? Is it the owners, the board, the manager or the players? One thing is for sure, it's not the fans.
The United away support backed their team at Anfield in the only way they know how despite watching a team - a club - that has become a shell of its former self, humiliated by their great rivals. A penny for the thoughts of one of their biggest supporters, Sir Alex Ferguson, who watched, stony-faced, the latest catastrophe from high in the stands. This is not the legacy he imagined.
Ex-United legend and Sky Sports' Roy Keane called it "sad" while Gary Neville described the club as "broken" as Liverpool showed their class and exposed the grim reality for United, who have fallen some distance behind since finishing second last season.
"It was a sobering evening," said Neville. "We expected it. Not one Man Utd fan came here with any hope whatsoever. That team has got nothing.
"I cannot explain how it's gone from what would be slightly promising at the end of last season finishing second - I know they lost in the Europa League final which was a bad one - to the point where we are today which is an all-time low in my 42 years of watching United. I've never seen it as bad as that."
This is a club that spent over £100m last summer, re-signed the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo and were harbouring hopes of being able to mount a serious challenge to Liverpool and Manchester City.
Now it's one with an interim manager, a protracted managerial appointment and a set of players who are uninterested, unmotivated and uninspiring. With five games left of the season, it could even get worse.